PhD Life Trips: My Brazilian Experience

In September, I was lucky enough to be invited to join a group of fellow Environmental Scientists on a trip to the beautiful Brazil! The group consisted of three academics and three very over-excited PhD students. The aim of the trip was to set up collaborative work with a University in the North Federal Rural University of the Amazon (URFA) based in Belem. Additional academics, who had previous links with the University of Nottingham, also attended the meetings in Belem facilitating a great collaboration between three Universities in inter-disciplinary areas.

Acai seeds are a waste product in Brazil. While in Brazil, we discussed producing charcoal from Acai and exploring the potential positive benefits on soil.

Acai seeds are a waste product in Brazil. While in Brazil, we discussed producing charcoal from Acai and exploring the potential positive benefits on soil.

Whilst in Brazil, the first thing that struck me was the different approach to research. Many of the Brazilian academics and post-docs couldn’t understand why we wanted to work in collaboration with them, other than the obvious: getting to visit Brazil!! The trip to Brazil was especially exciting for me as the concept on which I base my PhD project, biochar, originated from ancient Amazonian farming practises where charcoal is added to soils to improve fertility. So working with Brazilians on the topic really brought out the geek in me! The local academics loved the enthusiasm, but couldn’t completely relate. I learnt that the agricultural sector faces a lot of social issues. There are the huge companies, such as Monsanto, which dominate the market in the South and are trying to penetrate the North, where farming is seen more on a sustenance level. The North struggle with a reduced capacity for farming due to protection of the rainforest therefore reduced land. The reduced capacity, sustenance levels and pressure from corporations means farmers in the North are reluctant to make any changes to their tried and tested farming practices. Any additions or changes to the farming traditions in the North need to be 100% beneficial due to the heavy reliance on local farms for food. While in Brazil, my understanding of the extent to which locals depend on farming massively increased, putting into context the impact of my own PhD work.

While in Belem I was asked to present my work on soil remediation through biochar amendment to soils, and after seeing the enthusiasm for biochar in the area, I was excited to present my ideas! The language barrier made the presenting difficult, but thankfully a postdoc was on hand to act as translator. The academics then presented suggestions or potential oversights within our projects which, although slightly daunting, turned out to be extremely beneficial. The presentation was given in a fairly relaxed manner allowing the Brazilian academics and postgrad students to be critical without being intimidating. The feedback as extremely useful to really get me thinking and highlighted the importance of having clear aims in order to develop the impact of my work. After the presentations we enjoyed the sun set over the amazon with a beer: I definitely felt I deserved it due to the interrogation after my presentation!
Overall I found the trip extremely interesting as I got to observe first hand how different education, farming and economic systems work globally! It was also great to see the potential impact my work could be having, a long way down the line… The key drive for sustainability in Brazil was brilliant and is something the UK agricultural industry could learn a thing or two from. The country values the magnificence of the rainforest and understands that any newly developed technologies need to respect and maintain the forest. Brazil. It was an absolute pleasure and I have no doubt I will be back- as long as I can string together a few quid for the air fare!

The amazing Amazonian sunset

The amazing Amazonian sunset

Rosie Brian

The University of Nottingham

@dodgy_biology

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